It hasn’t been too long since the publication of Tony Ingle’s book, “I Don’t Mind Hitting Bottom, I Just Hate Dragging,” but in light of what’s happened in the two years since then, a new chapter would seem to be in order.
For one thing, the Dalton native — who had already led Kennesaw State’s men’s basketball team to the 2004 Division II national championship — added a couple more big wins for the Owls during that stretch. During the 2009-10 season, in their first year of full postseason eligibility for Division I since going through a four-year transition to the NCAA’s highest level, eighth-seeded Kennesaw State upset top-seeded Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun tournament. Then on Nov. 15, in their second game of the 2010-11 season, the Owls welcomed big brother Georgia Tech to campus quite rudely with an 80-63 victory against the Yellow Jackets.
And oh yeah, one more thing. Ingle and his entire staff were let go last week when interim athletic director Scott Whitlock — with the support of Daniel S. Papp, the university’s president — announced that their contracts would not be renewed. It had been a tough year for the Owls, whose early highlight against Tech was dimmed both by the fact the Yellow Jackets turned out to not be very good (they saw their coach, Paul Hewitt, dismissed last week as well) and the fact that the Owls struggled mightily themselves, losing 10 in a row after the upset.
But that was not, Whitlock emphasized in a release posted on Kennesaw State’s athletic website the day the decision was announced, why the current staff won’t be back. Instead, concerns among the decision-makers had grown about “the program’s academic performance issues,” though not its academic integrity.
In other words, nobody was saying the Owls were doing anything dishonest, just that they weren’t getting it done in the classroom.
But if anyone is equipped to deal with a setback, it’s Ingle. If you know his story at all, you know it’s one of obstacles overcome, again and again and again, something his book illustrates quite clearly. And he was here in Dalton on Wednesday with students at Southeast Whitfield HIgh School, spending part of the morning sharing those stories — of five childhood surgeries to repair a facial deformity, of dealing with poverty as part of a family of eight, of flunking the fifth grade, of enduring a beating from his father the night before he was to make his first start at North Whitfield High, of losing his job as coach at BYU after going 0-19.
Gathered in the school’s auditorium were fourth through eighth graders from Dug Gap Elementary, Valley Point Elementary and Valley Point Middle who participate in the Raider Nation’s Student Leadership Academy, an application-only program that teaches them how to be leaders wherever they are. Listening to the speakers is only one part of the program, but certainly an educational one when such life experiences are shared — and in this case, perhaps twice as meaningful considering they’d gone through a study of Ingle’s book.
“Your life is important,” Ingle told his audience. “Your decisions are important.”
Joining students from the Student Leadership Academy were several Southeast athletes, whom Ingle connected with early on by sharing the fact that it was on this very campus that he held his first job as a head basketball coach in 1977-78. He also connected with his listeners by drawing laughs several times, including when he shared the tale of the night he tried to get his Raiders fired up by asking them, “Who’s a winner?”
Instead of hearing a legendary name like Vince Lombardi or John Wooden, though, a voice in the back of the locker room had piped up, “Oscar Mayer.” Ingle, still consumed with fervor for the coming game, kept going with it — “Yeah! Yeah!” — assuming he knew the name from somewhere, though he couldn’t quite place it, before another player said, “No, coach, Oscar Mayer’s a WEENIE.”
After speaking for an hour, answering questions from students and signing his book, with the auditorium now all but empty, Ingle quietly reflected again on the fact that he was on familiar turf.
“I told my wife last night, you know it’s weird that I’m going to go back to Southeast, the first place I ever became a head coach,” Ingle said. “And I’m coming from Kennesaw, which might be the last place I ever coach.”
Ingle still has a job, even if it’s not the job most have come to associate him with. He plans to continue his work at Kennesaw State in a fundraising capacity at least until June 2012, when he’ll be eligible for retirement. But both before then and whenever it is he decides his time on that campus is done, he has other things he’d like to do as well.
He displays no fear of stepping in front of a group, whether it’s middle school students or the men and women of Corporate America, and sharing the pain he has endured and the prized he has enjoyed along the way. Telling his story is one thing he certainly plans to keep on doing.
“I’ve had a couple agencies contact me about professional speaking,” Ingle said. “I’ve done that before. ... Basically what they’ve said is ‘Tony, it’s time for you to branch out. You’ve always worked with just 15 players a year. And the Lord probably wants you to be out there, because a lot of people are having hard times. So instead of working with 15 people a year, over the course of a year you might be able to work with 15,000 people.’”
Ingle has done color commentary for Mountain West Conference basketball games before, and he expects he might find his way to television again. He has dealt with the athletic equipment business before, and no doubt has connections there if he wanted to pursue them. And it’s worth emphasizing, lest this past season’s struggles paint too broad a stroke, he has been a successful coach who’s still proud of the fact that his Owls are the only college basketball team in Georgia to win an NCAA crown on any level.
It was with that victory he fulfilled a vow he made to himself to win a national championship as a coach when he suffered a devastating knee injury while playing for Dalton Junior College.
Ingle hasn’t completely ruled out a return to the court, although he made it clear it would have to be the right fit for both sides making the deal. And he doesn’t find the thought of basketball so painful, for instance, that he won’t check on the tournament today to see how his friends in the business are doing. But he talked more about a different sort of leadership on Wednesday.
“I want to coach from a podium,” Ingle said.
As for that suggestion that Ingle’s book needs a new chapter? Well, Ingle is a step ahead of us on that one, already planning an entirely new book that will focus more on the wisdom he’s gathered than what he’s been through in the past.
“I want to bless people’s lives,” Ingle said, “and encourage them.”
For someone who already was a firm believer that it is what’s ahead that’s most important, that type of focus is as crucial as ever right now. And while Ingle wasn’t happy about what happened last week — he said he’ll take his share of the responsibility, but that it’s not all his — he doesn’t plan on dwelling on it, because he doesn’t believe this latest downturn has to stay that way, either for him or the Owls.
“I don’t believe in getting bitter, I believe in getting better,” Ingle said. “And moving forward.”
Marty Kirkland is sports editor of The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.